The Short Version: It’s the late 1990s and Jeremy’s working for a small video store in Nevada, Iowa. He’s thinking, slowly, about his future – but then customers begin to complain of strange scenes spliced into their VHS tapes. He starts to look into it… but some mysteries are, perhaps, never possible to explain.
The Review: It shouldn’t come as any surprise, to those who know John Darnielle’s work (either his fiction or his music), that reading Universal Harvester conjures a particular sense of the world – one that goes beyond simply an emotion or a time of year. To me, this novel evokes that particular sense of the fading days of the calendar year – the last week of October starts to see it, but really it’s November, when the angle of the sun has tilted such that even the brightest moment of the day is somehow dimmer than you quite thought it could be and the air starts to take on a sense of weight that comes from both cold and darkness. Universal Harvester is that atmosphere; it is the warm blanket and the cold dark night, it is the simultaneous beauty and sadness of “Eleanor Rigby” played on an old radio in an old house with the lights turned on and doing all they can to just barely batter back the darkness that gathers as the year winds down.
I read the book for the first time in October, for the second time in January – and I’m only just now coming around to being able to write about it. Darnielle has done something strange and magnetic with this novel, something that almost defies consideration by a reader like me. This is a novel dreamily perfect and frighteningly impenetrable all at once. It is not so much experimental (in the way of, say, the crop of young South American novelists or the Weird Fiction practitioners of any country) as it is the most fully realized example of David Lynchian dream logic ever put into novel form. In fact, Twin Peaks feels like a cousin to this novel, as though the two stories might happen in the same universe or at least universes who acknowledge each other on the street. It does not make for easy understanding but if you submit to the strangeness and recognize its very human underpinnings, you’ll find yourself bewitched by this novel.
The story is something out of a horror movie, or at least a thriller: strange scenes, some simply unsettling and others edging over into malice and violence, spliced into VHS tapes that’ve somehow made their way onto the shelves of an independent video store in the middle of Iowa. (My advance copy of the novel was sized like a VHS tape and housed in a plastic clamshell complete with grainy replication of the cover and a “Be Kind Rewind” sticker – those who loved the film of the same name may find here a similar nostalgic tune.) Some of these scenes are described, but often obliquely, with true realization of the scene coming at the end of the description or even many pages later. What’s universal is that they are unsettling as all get out – and they destabilize this young man, his boss, and his father.
But they do not destroy them. This novel consistently turns away from traditional scary-story paths, in a way that I imagine many readers will feel betrayed by. Darnielle is more interested here in the way that the strange interacts tangentially with our lives as opposed to the lives that are taken over by it. We don’t see what Sarah Jane (Jeremy’s boss) is doing, exactly, at the house where she used to live with the woman who lives there now. When the novel jumps forward in time to the near-present, we’re not given the resolution that you might expect but instead a second chapter in the mystery – a third, if you go so far as to include the parts of the novel that look backward in time. What is the mystery, though? It’s not these tapes, not really: the mystery is, corny as it may sound, family. Missing mothers, the gap between a parent and a child, the lives not of quiet desperation but quiet simplicity (desperate though that simplicity may sometimes be) – these are the mysteries that Darnielle is writing towards discovering.
This is not to say that there are not other mysteries and that he is not also trying to uncover them. There is a Lemony Snicket-esque tone to the narration at times (Lines like “There are other times when people go into the fields and yell different things. “‘Help!’ for example, often repeatedly with increasingly volume, or ‘Where are you taking me?'” seem to come straight out of the deadpan children’s novels) but also a persistent unease: who is telling this story? There are occasional interjections of first person, but I came away from the novel both times I read it with the distinct sense that there were multiple narrators. The instability of the novel, like a VHS tape watched too many times, intrigued me and challenged me. So much so, in fact, that months later I’m still considering these questions. I’m still curious as to the way Darnielle accomplished what he did and why he structured this book in such a confounding and open way. But I can’t deny that even in its strangeness, it captivated me. Do I still want to read Darnielle’s straight-thriller? Hell yes. But I’m so much happier that he’s taken a route altogether stranger. Of course, should we really have been surprised?
Rating: 6 out of 5. Few books encourage a second read ever, let alone within the first few months of reading the book. There are some that might be enjoyable on the level of pure pleasure, but it’s the books that stick in your mind like a fragment of a dream – the ones that, should you in fact return to them, reveal both more and less at the same time – that provoke a particular kind of curiosity. I started writing about Universal Harvester shortly after I finished it the first time, last October. I tried again in early February, after finishing it the second time. But it’s only now that my thoughts have begun to really cohere and only now that I can accurately explain just why this book struck me as it did. My mind rambles freely down the darker hallways that Darnielle’s narrators turn away from – but it also returns home to the deep, dark nights of early winter in a house not quite as cozy as it once was, wondering where the time has gone. This is not a book for everyone – in fact, I wonder if it might not be a book for a very select few. But those who find something here will, like those who encounter the edited tapes in the novel, also find themselves drawn back to this novel in their minds again and again without really knowing quite why. And, to me, this proves John Darnielle to be a novelist of the first rate, striking boldly out onto paths all his own.